The Testaments by Margaret Atwood was one of the most hotly anticipated books of 2019 and given it follows on from Atwood’s wildly successful and influential 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, how could it not be? Indeed, in the last five or so years, The Handmaid’s Tale has seemed more culturally pervasive and relevant than ever, with millions tuning into the excellent Hulu adaption of the novel and protestors throughout the world drawing on the striking imagery of the red cloak and white bonnet worn by Atwood’s handmaids.
When Atwood announced she would be releasing The Testaments in an attempt to answer all of the questions that fans had been asking her about Gilead in the 35 years since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand I’m an enormous fan of both Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale and was excited to delve further into the world she had created. But on the other hand, I was cautious. Part of what I loved so much about The Handmaid’s Tale was its brutally ambiguous ending. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a cruel and uncaring society and sometimes cruelty has no rhyme or reason. It felt right to me that the novel reflected this by refusing to offer any comfort or closure to its readers and I was wary of a sequel changing this.
However, there was a huge amount to enjoy about The Testaments. It picks up fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale and is told from the perspective of three very different narrators. Agnes is the daughter of a Commander who has no memory of anything before the rise of Gilead, Daisy is a young woman growing up in Canada who witnesses the horrors of Gilead from a relative distance and Aunt Lydia, who you’ll remember as the ruthless tormentor of handmaids from the first book, is continuing to wield her power under a more mature regime. I enjoyed the use of the split perspective and it was fascinating to see Gilead from the perspective of those who might be seen to benefit from it. The truly impressive feat, however, was how Atwood seamlessly brings these three seemingly unrelated streams of plot together to create a tightly woven narrative.
While there are similarities between The Testaments and its predecessor (the disturbing yet precise imagery, the dispassionate and chilling descriptions of Gilead’s atrocities), there are also clear points of divergence. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was introspective and focused building the oppressive society of Gilead, The Testaments is much more plot driven. There are daring escapes, secret adoptions and espionage galore, more than enough to keep even the most removed reader’s hearts pounding. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and the twists should keep you rapidly flipping the pages right up until the end.
However, my issues with the book became apparent as I approached its conclusion. A series of increasingly unlikely coincidences led me to something I’d never before encountered in an Atwood novel: a happy ending. I kept waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me, but the anticipated twist never came. I was frankly flummoxed and my feelings about the ending are decidedly mixed. On the one hand, while it felt somewhat like fan service, I’m a huge fan of these books and it was nice to be serviced. The ending was everything I wanted for these characters and it was wonderful to see them achieve a measure of peace. But on the other hand it just didn’t feel quite right.
When The Handmaid’s Tale was first published, Atwood made a point of stating that all of the horrific acts that Gilead inflicts on its citizens in the novel had already happened in real life somewhere in the world. This is part of what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so special and so chilling – the sense that this could really happen and that it was important to never grow complacent. However, I don’t feel this commitment to realism carries over to The Testaments. In the real world, children separated from their families are not being reunited with them against all the odds, refugees fleeing by boat are not being rescued when they run into danger and the seemingly evil people in charge have not been secretly working with the resistance all along. The ending of The Testaments reminded me of Jane Austen’s famous assertion that ‘My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.‘ But when I pick up a Margaret Atwood book, I’m expecting her style, not Austen’s.
Upon reflection though, I wonder if it is not more radical to write a happy ending rather than a realistic one? In this age of cynicism and disillusionment, where we can watch the realistic ending play out on the nightly news, is Atwood offering an alternative vision of hope as brave a choice as her abrupt, ambiguous ending was in 1985? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer, but what I do know is that while The Testaments does not quite live up to the legacy of its predecessor (and frankly, what book could?), it’s well worth a read and will continue to plague your thoughts long after you’ve put it down.